Howling at the Gods

I attended a panel on book publishing in New York City yesterday, featuring Johnny Temple of Akashic Books (which has published at least one book I really love), Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and GalleyCat, and Jonathan Karp of Warner Twelve, which hasn’t published much yet, although Karp was responsible for at least one book I’ve enjoyed as well.

Moderator Bryan Keefer had chosen his presenters for maximum contrast; Karp proudly represented the possibilities of editorial innovation in a corporate setting (Warner Twelve is a “concept company” that will publish twelve books a year from somewhere within Time Warner), while Temple stood for indie values and Weinman played the token blogger.

Temple spoke about how precision book sales tracking via Bookscan is changing the business, and revealed the frustrating truth that great critical acclaim tends to do very little for a book’s actual sales. All three panelists spoke about the stark financial realities of the publishing game, and these realities came to life when Keefer began soliciting questions from the audience.

After a few polite softballs, two unhappy writers began speaking up. The first was a brash young self-publisher whose print-on-demand title about the virtues of selfishness had sold over 600 copies (despite the fact that Ayn Rand had gotten there first). He asked if any publishing companies might notice that sales figure (which is impressive in the world of print-on-demand and not nearly as impressive in the world of mainstream publishing) and contact him. All three panelists answered quickly: no, he should not expect anybody to contact him, and he should get busy contacting them. “Well, I don’t know anybody,” the guy said. Temple suggested that he look for similar books that sell well, find out who published them, and start there. “So I should send mass emails to every publisher?” the guy responded, clearly not trying to hear what Temple was saying. No, the panelists asserted in near-unison, he should not send mass emails, but instead should carefully select a few publishers to contact. The guy seemed deaf to this advice and persisted in his Manichean belief that only two roads lay before him: either publishers would contact him or he would be forced to send mass emails. The panelists let the matter drop, and the guy packed up his stuff and left the room.

Next up was a young woman with a forlorn Fiona Apple look who said she’d once written a novel that had sold 5000 copies. But she’d lost her footing in the publishing world and was now completely lost, unpublished and angry. She played the pathos card, almost starting to cry, and like the previous questioner did not seem satisfied with the realistic responses her question received. Sarah Weinman counseled her to not give up hope, but the woman replied that this answer was “just bullshit”, at which point Sarah began to visibly sneer and both publishers on stage began to draw big imaginary “X” marks over the poor woman’s head (“X” being the code for “Do Not Publish This Writer Under Any Circumstances”).

I felt embarrassed to sit in an audience with these two deluded fools. Karp, Temple and Weinman had just spent an hour trying to communicate how book industry professionals view the business, but I don’t think these two authors had heard a word of it. They were simply howling at the gods, and the plaintive cry of the neglected genius is a sound too often heard at these types of events.

I had my own question planned, although I knew I couldn’t possibly provide the same level of theatrics as the two chronic complainers who’d preceded me. Byran Keefer had earlier brought up a recent New York Times article about book pricing by Ed Wyatt which I’ve been ranting about myself (I also emailed literary agent/blogger Miss Snark with a link to my article, which inspired a lively discussion over at her place). Keefer had asked the panelists if two-tier book pricing was going to remain the dominant model, and Karp delivered the sad news that, in his opinion, the two-tier system works and we’re stuck with it. But Karp had earlier used the word “egalitarian” to describe his ideals as a book publisher, and I now pointed out to him that there’s nothing egalitarian about a pricing model that forces readers who can’t pay $25 for a first-run hardcover to wait a year for the book to come out in an affordable paperback edition. My question seemed to cause at least a ripple of recognition onstage, and I enjoyed hearing Jonathan Karp say “yes, you are right”. But then Sarah Weinman suggested I shut up and go to the library (her words were actually more polite) and the others on stage nodded in agreement. Maybe I was just howling at the gods myself.

In other publishing-biz news, Soft Skull has come up with an exciting new subscription model for poetry books, currently featuring titles by Todd Colby, Gary Mex Glezner and Daniel Nester. Good for Soft Skull, and I hope we’ll see more and more innovative book-pricing ideas like this one.

Finally, the three winners of the 2006 Blooker Prize are going to be announced on Monday, and we at LitKicks are hoping to win (interestingly, the moderator of yesterday’s panel is also a finalist for this prize, though in a different category). We think we deserve this honor, so please pray for us. Or at least howl at some gods on our behalf.

8 Responses

  1. i’m howlin’, brother!I spent
    i’m howlin’, brother!

    I spent years talking too much and not listening enough. I think it started when I was very young and people said how talented I was. A fish in a small pond feels accomplished until it gets thrust into the vast ocean and must learn to see the world differently.

    Good report!

  2. Wish You Were HereThat sounds
    Wish You Were Here

    That sounds like an interesting panel discussion. Wish I knew about it.

    Thanks for filling us in!

  3. I will pray for youSo, in
    I will pray for you

    So, in Ginsbergean terms, do you prefer giving a howl to saying kaddish?

  4. Definitely! I am not sure if
    Definitely! I am not sure if I have this right, but I believe kaddish would indicate that I am dead and undergoing a funeral.

  5. DV Code: 35 million hardcover
    DV Code: 35 million hardcover copies

    Da Vinci Code sold 35 million hard cover copies and the Left Behind series sold 55 million copies. Those are a lot of books so there must still be some folks that read.

    Possibly one solution is to use cheap paper paperbacks. The profit is probably the biggest factor.

    My personal problem is to have a tale that’s really worth telling.

  6. Well, the Left Behind series
    Well, the Left Behind series is certainly an exceptional case. Like The Passion of the Christ, it has shepards pushing it to their flocks. I haven’t read Tipping Point yet, but Malcolm Gladwell has a word for people who influence the behaviors of others, and that’s the role church leaders played in getting behind the Left Behind books. Like Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. Or Oprah, for that matter.

    Also, if my memory is correct, those books never appear in hardcover, instead going straight to Quality Paperback. Maybe publishers should take a lesson in that.

  7. I bet a lot of those Left
    I bet a lot of those Left Behind books were given as gifts and never even read.

    A few of my coworkers bought copies of my book, Time Adjusters. I never ask anyone if they read it. One girl saw me in the hall and looked embarrassed, saying, “Oh, I haven’t had a chance to read your book yet …”

    I said, “That’s OK! Wanna buy another one?”

  8. The Howling WindHas ever a
    The Howling Wind

    Has ever a mountain knelt at the insistence of the howling wind?

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